Stripping Away the Veil of Victory by Andy Shenk

Gregg Popovich received the Red Auerbach Coach of the Year Award last Tuesday. At the press conference held in his honor, surrounded by his coaching staff and seated next to Spurs GM R.C. Buford, Pop dismissed what he had done to earn such recognition, as well as the role he had played in the Spurs’ success this year: “You know, when you win, a lot of things get attributed to you that you shouldn’t get full credit for. And the opposite, you know…when you lose, you get blamed for a lot of things you probably shouldn’t get blamed for.” Pop attributed his coaching success to the Spurs’ very fortunate draft history, concluding that “there have been a lot of people who have been in circumstances that have not been in their favor who would be just as successful in this situation, but just didn’t have the opportunity.”

The next day the Spurs played the Utah Jazz in the second game of their best-of-seven first round series. San Antonio won, 114-83, the franchise’s third-largest margin of victory ever in a playoff game. In the post-game press conference, Popovich gave a simple analysis of the lopsided outcome: “It’s still just a basketball game. We had a good night; they had a poor night. You know, I think they shot 23% in the first half, or close to that. That’s probably not gonna get it done for anybody…We shot it better than that and it was enough to make the game what you saw. It’s a lot about whether the ball goes in the hole or not, and they just had a tough night.”

Several years ago Popovich explained to reporters the origins of the “Pounding the Rock” mantra, which is prominently displayed in the Spurs’ locker room: “You get tired of all that other junk. ‘Winners never do this’ or ‘Losers always quit.’ ‘There’s no I in team’ — all the typical, trite silly crap you see in locker rooms at all levels. It’s always turned me off, so I thought that this was maybe a little bit more, I don’t know, intelligent.” The philosophy of “Pounding the Rock” dispenses with the superstitious and simplistic, focusing rather on the daily, dedicated effort needed to maximize own’s potential: “When nothing seems to help, go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and you will know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

The more you listen to Gregg Popovich, the more you realize that the man will take credit for nothing. Upon receiving his second Red Auerbach Trophy, he did all he could to hand it off to his assistants and allow them to share the honor. They refused, even when he awkwardly pursued them across the court in front of eighteen and a half thousand fans.

Victories are the intended result of Popovich’s work rather than the necessary outcome. Following the game six loss last year to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, which knocked the top-seeded Spurs out of the playoffs, Pop spent most of the press conference effusively praising the Grizzlies: “A fine job. They were the better team and they played better than we did in that stretch of six games…I’m obviously saddened by the loss, but I’m happy for them and what they’ve accomplished. It’s been awhile for the city…Congrats to those guys.”

Pop’s entertainment lies in stripping away the layers of exaggerated significance placed upon his profession. Prior to watching the Grizzlies eliminate his team from the playoffs, he elucidated on the upcoming game in Memphis: “It’s a challenge, but it’s basketball. It’s nothing complicated…that none of us has not done before.” Pop knows that the wins, the championships, the floats down the River Walk will one day end. Rather than cling to the ephemeral, he enjoys the process and the many years he’s been allowed to teach a game to some of the greatest athletes in the world.